The Children Star
by Joan Slonczewski
W orlds fold into worlds fold into worlds in The Children Star, Joan Slonczewski's newest novel. Here one travels from alien communities living within a single person to cultures and planets light years apart. And every journey, every world described, is fascinating.
Slonczewski, an associate professor of biology at Kenyon, is well known on campus as a challenging, imaginative teacher and accomplished researcher. She has also received a good deal of attention, including reviews in national magazines and newspapers, for her inventive, and provocative, science fiction.
The Children Star is very much in keeping with Slonczewski's previous work, using the genre of biological, or "hard," science fiction, with a rigorous treatment of scientific detail, to explore cultural, moral, and political issues. Readers familiar with her earlier novels will be pleased to find themselves back in the universe that she first created in A Door into Ocean and then expanded upon in her next book, Daughter of Elysium.
The world of this new book is a very complex one. Political and economic forces battle for supremacy in a system where planets can be terraformed to fit any race. Not only can we "boil off" planets and remake their ecosystems, but individuals can be slowly altered to fit into planets whose habitats may not be friendly to their biological structures. People can be "life-shaped" with genes redesigned to allow them to survive in new ecosystems.
Where A Door into Ocean and the sequel, Daughter of Elysium, stayed within similar worlds, here we are introduced to an entirely new planet, Prokaryon. It is a setting radically different from those in her previous works--and certainly different from the readers' known universe of flora and fauna here on Earth.
"Prokaryon was named for its unique `prokaryotic' life-forms," the novel explains. "Animal or vegetable, all Prokaryan cells contained circular chromosomes, free of nuclear membraneslike bacteria, prokaryotes. But Prokaryan cells were ring-shaped as well. And the higher structure of all the multicellular organisms was toroid, from the photosynthetic `phycoids' that grew tall as trees, to the tire-shaped `zooids' that rolled over the fields they grazedor preyed upon those that did."
Slonczewski's fans will find characters, both new and familiar, from Valan, Bronze Sky, and Elysium in The Children Star. The novel centers on a new character, 'jum, a small girl who is saved by Brother Rod, a member of a religious sect called the Spirit Brethren. The story follows the relationship between these two; they become a touchstone for judging the economic and political forces that vie for ownership of Prokaryon.
Both of these characters are complex enough to allow Slonczewski to explore the morality of bioengineering as well as the problems of raising children, children who may or may not be at home in the world where they must live. 'jum is a particularly interesting creation, certainly one of the more fascinating figures to be encountered in recent science fiction.
The science in The Children Star can seem daunting, and it is true that some knowledge of current scientific trends and debate will increase one's appreciation of Slonczewski's work. But the science is clearly explained, and it is integral to the plot. Moreover, the conversation in this novel, as in her others, is as much about politics and morality as it is about genes and chromosomes. In essence, the novel is about cultural identity, individualism, poverty, and the moral response to poverty. Slonczewski takes us away from Earth so we can better look back at it. As with any good work of science fiction, all that is alien serves to give us a new look at the familiar.
Elizabeth R. Forman '73, assistant director of admissions
Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food
by Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey '89
Common Courage Press
P erhaps now, more than ever before, you should be aware that your food does not come from the grocery store. What you don't know about where and how your food was produced can harm you.
Do you know what herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics, hormones, insecticides, and inorganic fertilizers your food has been treated with? Do you know about the residue levels of those compounds in your food? Do you know anything about the cumulative toxicity of those compounds?
As the age of chemical agriculture matures, yet another unknown has entered the field. Biotechnology, the direct manipulation of an organism's genes (genetic engineering), now allows the development of plants that aren't even all plant, genetically speaking. What are the effects of novel gene combinations in your food supply?
Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey explore the profound implications of agricultural genetic engineering in Against the Grain. The book is both an informative account of the biotechnology revolution in farming and a provocative challenge to the notion that these developments represent progress.
Offered as a panacea, genetic engineering in agriculture has promised to provide crops with nutritional enhancements and increased growth efficiencies in less than optimal environments. Lappé and Bailey, who work for the Center for Ethics and Toxics in California, argue that these promises have thus far failed to materialize, even though a significant percentage of grain, root, and fiber crops are now produced by engineered plants.
If not production efficiency or nutritional enhancement, what could possibly be driving the production of engineered crop plants? The answer to that question is largely corporate profit. Enter the chemical companies, those dollar-driven behemoths that have been profiting quite handily from agriculture by manufacturing and supplying patented chemicals to make agricultural production "easier." Chemicals with names like Roundup, Buctril, and Lasso will "wipe out" pests and weeds, the advertisements read. So what does this have to do with the biotechnology revolution and agriculture?
Shrewd agricultural chemical firms have been purchasing seed companies or entering into joint-venture relationships with them to produce engineered crop seed. One firm examined by Lappé and Britt is the Monsanto Corporation and its subsidiary, Hartz Seed Company, which have been developing crops with resistance to their nonselective herbicide Roundup. These "Roundup-Ready" plants can survive exposure to levels of the herbicide that would kill their nonengineered cousins and most other plants. Roundup is also marketed as an environmentally friendly herbicide, but Lappé and Bailey point out that this contention is subject to interpretation, as is the toxicity of the "inert" ingredients that Roundup contains.
As of 1998, Roundup-Ready seed technology had been applied to soybeans, cotton, and corn, and Monsanto plans to have 100 percent of the soybean crop in the United States Roundup-Ready in the future. What are the advantages of Roundup-Ready crops? Superficially, they will be easier and less costly to grow. Weed control is high on the list of factors that improve yield and therefore profit. Before Roundup-Ready technology, two or more different herbicides might be needed to kill most of the weeds in a bean field. Now, farmers can simply plant their fields with beans that have been engineered to survive Roundup, let them grow, and then spray the fields with Monsanto's herbicide, killing the weeds but not the soybeans. In this production model, the farmers use more Roundup in order to save fuel and labor.
Who benefits? Farmers benefit, at least on the surface, by reducing some production costs--assuming, of course, that the cost of Roundup is relatively low. Monsanto benefits manyfold. First, sales of Roundup necessarily increase with this kind of farming. Second, the licensing of Roundup-Ready technology to seed producers gives the company a cut of every bag of Roundup-Ready seed sold. Third, since the technology belongs to Monsanto, the company owns the genetics of the crop produced, so farmers cannot save their seed and replant it. They must purchase new seed each season, further increasing the demand for the technology. From the standpoint of the corporation, this is a very favorable production model.
And who are the losers here? Lappé and Bailey contend that we all may be the losers over the long term. With fewer corporations controlling crop genetics, there will likely be a reduction in the genetic diversity of crop species, with an accompanying loss of environmental plasticity, which in the end makes those crops more vulnerable to disease and environmental shifts. The environment may suffer, too, as significant increases in chemical application affect groundwater and soil ecology. The accumulation of engineered gene products also has implications for nutrition and health, because both the residues of pesticides and their breakdown products may well enter the food chain in increasing levels.
Federal regulating agencies have ruled that there is no difference between an engineered and a naturally bred crop; at present, there is no requirement to separate genetically engineered seed from nonengineered seed. Thus, the authors point out, food companies are not compelled to label products containing engineered commodities. Indeed, it is often impossible for food makers to know whether their products can ultimately be traced to seed that was manipulated so that large applications of herbicide were essential to its growth.
The bottom line is that unless you know and trust the person who produced your food, you will have no way of knowing whether your food contains engineered grain and associated toxins.
In Against the Grain, Lappé and Bailey have done an effective job of investigating and reporting on the attempted corporate takeover of our food supply. Whether you are casually interested in environmental studies, actively engaged in agricultural production, or deeply concerned with the quality of your food, life, and the environment, this book should be on your reading list for 1999.
--Oscar H. Will III, director of information access and adjunct professor of environmental studies
France Restored: Cold War Diplomacy and the Quest for Leadership in Europe, 1944-1954
William I. Hitchcock '86
University of North Carolina Press
W hen World War II ended, France was an enfeebled state. Five years earlier it had succumbed with embarrassing swiftness to the onslaught of the German army, offering itself up to Nazi occupation as the price for averting penalties more searing than surrender. Its reemergence after the war was less the result of the strength of the French resistance than the ultimate weakness of German resilience in the face of the combined resources of the Americans, the Russians, and the British. Restored to independence by the efforts of allies and then given token admission to the ranks of the Big Four, France staggered into the postwar world with its morale drained, its politics divided, and its economy in ruins.
Not surprisingly, the leaders of the Fourth Republic were preoccupied with Germany. Ever since its unification in 1871, Germany had been the chief source of uncertainty in Europe and consequently the principal explanation for the second thirty years' war that had broken out in 1914. Moreover, in both world wars the German army had proved itself more than a match for its French counterpart. That's why, whatever other responsibilities lay before post-war French leaders, the task of confining Germany was universally recognized as the preeminent one. In France Restored, William Hitchcock tells the story of how those leaders, though playing from a position of weakness, contrived not only to nudge and prod Germany back into the comity of Europe but also to harness German economic recovery to the goal of promoting French economic growth.
It is an illuminating story. According to Hitchcock, the key to understanding France's relative success in realizing what he calls its "national strategy" lies in the recognition that the political leadership, though divided in many ways, was at one in its faith in a "planning consensus." (Anglo-American commentators might expect the author at this point to invoke the spirit of seventeenth-century French statesman Jean Baptiste Colbert; Hitchcock, however, understands and argues that the process was in fact grounded in twentieth-century definitions of French imperatives.) Through talk of planning it became possible to depoliticize the language of governance--to invoke the goals of efficiency and rationality as stand-ins for more obviously ideological aims--and thereby to win support for governmental programs from many sectors across the political nation.
Moreover, this enthusiasm for planning allowed France to recognize that in U.S. General George C. Marshall's proposals for promoting European postwar recovery lay the potential for chaining Germany to Europe. Shortly thereafter, French leadership seized upon the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) because it held the same potential. And thus France, for reasons that served its own "national strategy," was often eager to support schemes that in Washington's eyes were designed not so much to control Bonn as to contain Moscow. Even after the Marshall Plan and NATO were ongoing activities--and even though France could not always bend these emerging institutions according to its own vision--French leadership was often successful in assuring that the developing structures and purposes of European and Atlantic cooperation were at least consonant with French interests.
And there was more. As French leaders came to see that international affairs might be crafted into win-win interactions rather than reduced to a zero-sum competitions, they became proponents of such measures as the creation of a European coal and steel community, a planned cooperative enterprise that served both to subject German recovery to elements of French direction and to allow German economic growth to help pull France out of its own post-war economic doldrums. In sum, French leadership domesticated German truculence.
As an examination of the institutional origins of the drive for European unity, this study foregrounds the accomplishments of French diplomacy. One of its general implications touches on the possibilities inherent in negotiating from weakness, for it suggests that, with intelligence and purpose, a straitened state can punch above its weight.
But it is another implication, a more specific one, that caught my attention. The received wisdom about postwar France is that only with the return of Charles de Gaulle to power in 1958 did the republic again begin to play a major role in European affairs. In elaborating upon the successes of Robert Schuman and Pierre Mendès-France, however, Hitchcock demonstrates that the celebrity that attaches to the work of de Gaulle is in some measure
misdirected. Far from being the restorer of French glory, he was in fact the ungrateful beneficiary of his predecessors' diplomatic and economic triumphs. According to Hitchcock, as early as 1955 France "stood with more real influence on the continent than it had enjoyed since 1919, and perhaps since 1870." The author's message is that while the Fourth Republic may have been constitutionally flawed, it was strategically enlightened and economically successful.
This study advances our understanding of the shaping of the contemporary European world. By choosing a narrative approach rather than a topical approach, Hitchcock has given himself room to show how, stage by stage, French policy took shape against a shifting background of economic, diplomatic, colonial, and political considerations. The book reads easily, its conclusions are clear and well argued, and it remains focused throughout. It will serve as a useful introduction to anyone seeking a fuller understanding of postwar Europe and, for the scholarly, as a valuable analysis of French postwar policy-making. One comes away from the book with the sense that the negotiating skills honed by French diplomats in the era of Louis XIV left a legacy that French diplomats of our century found inspiring.
--Reed S. Browning, professor of history
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